The Butterfly Effect

I’ve been thinking about inconsequential things, or, more precisely, the impact that an inconsequential thing can have. Like the fact that my mother couldn’t drive.

You’ve heard of the Butterfly effect. It’s the scientifically based concept that the tiniest of actions will cause a reaction, and that reaction compounds into a major effect. Outside of scientific theory, it’s a metaphor for our lives.

When we can’t see the reason for something that happens, we say that it’s random, but nothing is really random so much as it’s an outcome of a chain of smaller events, within one big complex system: of human behaviour, genetics, environmental effects – the whole ecology of life on earth.

The Butterfly effect can play a part in regret, especially when a tragedy occurs. For example, when my cousin died in a house fire, people close to him may have felt regret over some tiny moment that could, in hindsight, have led to the specific circumstance of him being at home overnight alone, with a fire going in the fireplace of his country weatherboard house. Perhaps when his girlfriend became pregnant they made a casual remark about how great it would be to buy an old weatherboard house with an open fireplace, out in the middle of the country. Just for example.

But it occurs to me that the Butterfly effect is also in play when an inconsequential action leads to a chain of events that diverts someone from tragedy. For example, when the Swedish football team decided at the last minute to change their flights, and instead of all travelling together on the ill-fated Germanwings flight to Dusseldorf, they split up and took three other flights. They couldn’t know that choice, probably the outcome of another whole chain of small actions and decisions, would save their lives.

*

I’ve been thinking how it was basically because my mother couldn’t drive, that my parents sold our house in Ballarat when I was about 4 years old, and moved to a small, 3-pub town, about 20km outside of Ballarat.

That’s how my parents told it, anyway. Mum didn’t drive, they had three kids, and as very strict, religious, Catholics, they needed to plan for the possibility of more. Dad drove a truck for the Country Roads Board and was away all day most week days, so they needed a house where Mum could get anywhere she needed to on foot, pushing a pram and trailing toddlers and preschool children behind her.

I’ve thought about this over the past week with new hindsight. Maybe it was a stroke of good fortune for us kids that Mum didn’t drive, and that there happened to be a house for sale in this small town at just the right time,  a 60 second walk from the local Catholic church and primary school and therefore exactly what they were after.

Because if circumstances had been slightly different, if my mother drove, or if that particular house had not been for sale at that time, they could have bought a house somewhere else, and that could just as easily have been Ballarat East. If it had, then my brothers could have found themselves at St Alipius primary school in East Ballarat. And that would put the older boys, at least, in that school in the late 70s and into the early 80s – when a priest, Gerald Ridsdale, now known to be a notorious pedophile, was the chaplain there.

*

I’ve been thinking about this because in Australia, a Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse has been underway since 2015. Currently, the Commission is questioning Cardinal George Pell, who was a priest in Ballarat at the time in question, about how much he knew back when this priest was being moved around from one parish to another to cover up his tracks.

The interrogation of the Cardinal has been a high profile topic in Australian media in recent weeks. A crowd-funding campaign to send victims from Ballarat over to Rome to observe the Cardinal give video evidence raised over $50,000 in the first 24 hours. An Australian comedian released a song beseeching the Cardinal to come home, which went viral on social media, with all proceeds from sales of the song going to support services for the victims.

In the past few weeks the topic has been in every news report, and I have read some heartbreaking testimonies from people now in their 40s, 50s or 60s, about childhoods spent being violently abused by adults in an institutionalised position of power.

It’s a sad fact that there are similar stories being told all around the world, and this Royal Commission is investigating institutions beyond just the Catholic Church, but within Australia, the Catholic diocese in Ballarat is one of the more notorious institutions being investigated. It is now thought that the priest mentioned above was just one of a ring of pedophiles operating in Ballarat for years, preying on vulnerable boys and girls at specific schools and orphanages run by Catholic orders.

This is all centred around the town that’s close enough to think of as my home town (particularly as my actual home town was too small to have a high school, so I went to high school in Ballarat, as mentioned before, all my friends in high school lived there, and for that reason, I did all my socialising there. My actual home, however, was a 30 minute bus ride away.)

Any empathetic person would feel troubled by the victims’ stories I’ve read this week, but for me – and no doubt for other people who grew up in the area – there’s an additional element of recognition. Many of the victims look my age, or the age of my younger siblings. It strikes me anew every time I see them: I could have hung out with these people at secondary school, at sporting events, at school formals. They were growing up at the same time as me and living only 20km or so away. But through what seems at first to be the random luck of geographic location – theirs, mine, or, to view it the other way, where the Catholic Church chose to move two respective priests to – they became victims of abuse, and I did not.

*

 My childhood, in contrast, unfolding about 20 km away during the 1970s, was far from a breeze, although I realise now that to some other kids at that time, my life would have seemed like a happy dream.

It’s sad to think those kids would have felt “lucky” to be at my school, a Catholic primary school run by an order of nuns.

I could tell you about being hit, and seeing other children hit, all through my childhood: at home by both my parents, and at our Catholic primary school, by the nuns and lay teachers alike. This, mind you, was in the mid 70s through to the early 80s. It sounds barbaric and backward now, and I’m not trying to excuse that abuse of power by adults, but at least on the scale of things, my experience of being hurt by an adult was always in the context of a coldly dispensed punishment. I was extremely timid and never deliberately naughty at school, but prone to becoming so absorbed in an entertaining conversation with a friend, that I didn’t hear a teacher tell us to be quiet. At my school, that warranted a few raps with a ruler over the knuckles, or a thick strap over the palm.

I was never hit badly enough at school to cause any serious physical or emotional damage. I can’t speak for others, however. When I picture some of the strappings and canings I saw male students receive, the words that come to mind are anger, hatred, contempt, fury. And that’s from both parties, the principal – a formidable old Irish nun – included. She kept a long thin cane, especially for use on the really bad boys. I once saw her throw a really bad boy across a desk.

Whatever his crime was, it was not impressive enough to stick in my memory.

*

When I related that story years later to one of my brothers, who attended a Catholic secondary boys college in Ballarat run by the Christian Brothers order, he laughed and said that was nothing. He said he’d seen a Brother throw a desk at a boy.

*

Oh, that’s right. There is another thing that reminds me how close we were to what was going on in Ballarat, and my mother is at the bottom of that as well.

My mother suffered from a mental illness, and one of the ways it manifested was that at some point, she  believed, for reasons I won’t go into, (not least because I am not sure if they were ever explained to me by anyone who really understood her reasons, ie, my mother) that she could no longer attend mass at the local church.

That’s the church that’s a 30 second-walk from our house, the house that was purchased largely because of proximity to said church.

To me, at the time (this first happened when I was in approximately grade 6) this was just another one of the depressingly “weird” things about my family. So now, although we lived close enough to the Catholic Church to throw a stone from our front yard and almost hit the church windows, all of a sudden, on Sunday mornings as our friends and their families were heading into the church, we’d have to drive right past them in our family van, heading into Ballarat, to whichever parish Mum currently felt she could attend. Over the next few years, a pattern slowly formed, because eventually whatever church we were attending would also be forbidden to her, and we’d have to move on to another one.

I was probably 10 or 11 through to about 15 or 16 while this went on, and I had no idea why we did this. In my perception it was just a very public and irrefutable way to display the weirdness of my family to the whole of our local township, just in case they had any doubt.

Over that time, we gradually worked our way around all the different Catholic churches that lay within a half hour drive from home – basically the entire Ballarat diocese – and therefore, there was a period of time, I don’t know how long, when we attended mass every Sunday at St Alipius.

I can’t date that accurately, but it’s very likely that same pedophile priest was saying Sunday mass there at the time.

*

So each time I hear another story from a victim from Ballarat, I’m horrified and heartbroken at the cruelty that humans are capable of. I’m baffled by how the simple act of living can be made into a living hell for some people and it can appear to be random luck as to who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or which priest was assigned to which parish and stayed there for the next however many years.

And then I’m reminded that it’s not just random luck. Or if it is, then what we call random luck is just the consequence of being at the end of a chain of events that begins with the most inconsequential thing, like your mother not being able to drive, and leads eventually to a fork in the road, where those children whose life’s path took them to the left are merely hit with a strap and thrown over desks, while those whose path took them right, only a few kilometres away, have their entire childhoods taken away from them.

 

 

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5 Comments

  1. Thought-provoking start to your post, and I love how people (in this country – the UK – too) tend to define a town by the number of pubs 🙂
    As you may be aware, we have various investigations underway into historic abuse as well. It’s beyond awful what these people managed to get away with for so long.

    Liked by 1 person

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    • It’s gratifying that you liked how I started that post because I changed the opening paragraph around about 6 times. So thank you! I actually wasn’t aware that investigations were also happening in the UK but I’m glad to hear it.

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  2. Heartbreaking. All around.

    Liked by 1 person

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  3. There is so much in this post that to cover everything would need a comment as long as the original article! I will therefore mention just a couple of points.

    When I was at school, both primary and secondary, physical punishment was the norm. No one considered it unusual or unacceptable. In fact, I think some parents were grateful that the school took on the task of disciplining their unruly children.

    At my primary school, a new headmaster, a new broom sweeping clean, used the strap without stint. I once had the strap applied to me. I didn’t deserve it. I was falsely accused by a classmate and the teacher, in a bad mood, didn’t investigate but sent me to the headmaster to ‘get the strap’. He applied it in front of the class, to my embarrassment and shame. I can’t say I was traumatized by the event but it did upset me deeply and, if I am honest, I still retain a small bubble of resentment to this day.

    At the secondary school, the headmaster plied the cane and class teachers slapped boys, pulled their hair, rapped them over the knuckles with a ruler, threw chalk, the board rubber and other objects at them and I even saw a teacher ‘lose it’ and punch a boy several times before expelling him from the class. I never heard of any parent complaining or of teachers being accused of assault.

    The atmosphere has now changed. People cry ‘Assault!’ and ‘Outrage!’ if a teacher, or anyone else, lays a finger on their children. Such accusations would merely have evoked a smile of incredulity in my school days.

    Your brothers were fortunate not to have been abused like some other children. I see a parallel between this and the acceptance of physical punishment. When abuse takes place in children’s homes and the victims have no unsupervised contact with the outside world they cannot report what is being done to them but when this happens at day school, or even boarding school, where children have regular contact with parents and other people outside the institution, how can the facts of the abuse not be known? It’s not credible. I can only think that there was the same acceptance of abuse as there was of physical punishment. People knew but, for whatever reason, saw fit to keep quiet about it even when it involved their own children. I really think that this too should be investigated.

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    • Schools were very different places back in the day, and you’re right about attitudes. My parents certainly wouldn’t have thought there was any problem with our teachers belting children with straps or whacking them with rulers and sticks – they did the same thing to us at home in the name of discipline. Plus, all the schools we were sent to were run by religious orders and my parents would not question the St Josephites or the Christian Brothers – as long as what they were doing had a long tradition. (When they took issue it was with “modern” practices). I wonder if the acceptance of harsh physical punishment as just a normal thing made it easier for adults to overlook signs that something worse was going on. I imagine that any sane and reasonable adult could not, and would not, have “accepted” sexual abuse of children as normal, but in that type of environment they may have more easily been able to remain in denial about what was really going on, by seeing all sorts of signs and behaviour that could have told them otherwise, as merely the results of a child who’d been “justly” but harshly punished for wrongdoings.

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